After a grueling 10-hour meeting, the Montecito Planning Commission on Wednesday postponed making a decision on the fate of an emotionally charged proposal to revive the abandoned Miramar Hotel alongside Highway 101, due largely to the issue’s complexity. It will take up the matter again on Aug. 6.
Although the proposal for a new five-star hotel at 1555 S. Jameson Lane has received the blessings of Santa Barbara County staff, the Montecito Board of Architectural Review and the Montecito Association, the Planning Commission did not give developer Rick Caruso an easy time.
From the size of hallways to the height of the buildings, the commission scrutinized many details of the project, and second-guessed many of the findings made by county staff. Above all, the commissioners questioned a Caruso-friendly conclusion made by staff that could presumably make or break the entire $400 million project: that it does not require a full environmental impact report. County staff had concluded such a review is not necessary because the project is substantially similar to another redevelopment plan for the site that was approved by the county but later abandoned by a previous owner.
Caruso — a developer of high-end shopping centers and a potential Los Angeles mayoral candidate — has threatened to abandon his proposed 204-room hotel if he is required to conduct a full EIR, saying it is not necessary and would be cost-prohibitive.
Among the commission’s concerns was a technical question that Caruso found galling: Whether he had under-calculated the square footage of the buildings’ net floor area.
Commission chairman Bob Bierig questioned, for instance, why two-thirds of the ballroom building was not accounted for in the square footage amount listed in staff reports for the structure.
“I’m concerned that massive amounts of building are being considered as nonbuilding,” he said. “I’ve never seen a project before us that interpreted our regulations that way.”
This matters, Bierig said, because current code does not allow for the total interior square footage to be much larger than the amounts currently given.
The Caruso camp replied by saying that hallways and corridors need not be counted. They added that the plans have undergone nearly 18 months of scrutiny from the county staff.
Ultimately, Bierig was not completely satisfied with the answer, and asked staff to re-examine the matter before the Aug. 6 meeting.
“If staff’s recommendation is all we had to do, we wouldn’t have a reason to be meeting today,” Bierig said.
The proposal for the project to bulldoze the ghost town of a hotel that closed in 2000 and rebuild it has wide-ranging implications for many. Neighbors worry about its size and scale on the one hand but the blight of the rat-infested ruins of the abandoned project on the other. Other locals are worried about the traffic implications, but drawn to the developer’s stated intentions to provide public pathways to the beach and more public parking to the area. The county, meanwhile, is in the midst of a financial crisis, and could really use the hotel bed tax dollars.
In general, supporters say the blight needs to go, and they credit Caruso as an able developer who has a shot at building something that will be economically viable and aesthetically pleasing. Critics say the project is too large, pointing out that it fails to meet zoning requirements on matters such as height, setbacks and parking. They add that it is among the largest developments ever proposed in Montecito — “the size of three Home Depots,” according to one witness — and so should be subject to an EIR.
Wednesday’s hearing was a colorful one, featuring the nattily dressed Caruso, who was accompanied by a bevy of similarly suited-up aides and interns. To the roaring delight of supporters, Caruso showed a video touting, through documentary-style interviews of locals, the benefits of reviving the hotel.
The subsequent cheering prompted a scolding from Bierig, who threatened to clear the room if decorum was not met.
“This is not a love fest,” Bierig said. “This is a hearing.”
Also present was Seinfeld actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a neighbor of the project and a fervent critic of its size. She and her husband, TV writer and producer Brad Hall, are among a group of opponents calling for an EIR because the project is significantly larger than the one proposed by the previous owner, Studio 54 co-founder Ian Schrager.
In a moment of levity, Louis-Dreyfus seemed to invoke a widely recognized line from Seinfeld in calling for project “shrinkage.”
“Nobody is more desperate than I am to see the Miramar Hotel return,” she said. “I have to drive through that dilapidated, rat-infested disaster every day to get to my house.” But, she added, “this would be far and away the largest building in Montecito. It would also be hugely bigger than the old Miramar, which by the way wasn’t small. This desperately needs shrinkage. Mr. Chair, please give us shrinkage, and that is no joke.”
All told, about 140 people filled out speaker slips in favor of the project, and 20 in opposition, according to supporters, although many people who filled out speaker slips did not speak.
One supporter, Vern Langdon, derided what he viewed to be the commission’s over-attention to detail.
“Are there enough closets?” he asked. “How many spigots are in the fountains? … Will there be leather bar stools? … I’ve eaten a lot of cottage cheese in my day, but I’ve never listened to so much.”
Commissioner Michael Phillips was most critical of the staff conclusion that no EIR is necessary because it is substantially similar to Schrager’s approved-but-shelved plans.
The projects would create roughly the same amount of noise, traffic and restaurant business, and Caruso’s plan actually has more parking — although less than what is required by code. However, it is larger, and, unlike Schrager’s plan, would not involve remaking the new hotel in the historic “blue-rooftop” image of the old.
“I can’t imagine a project more substantially changed from Schrager to Caruso,” Phillips said. “It’s such a different project.”
However, the explanation for the staff’s recommendation given by county counsel Ed Yates seemed to ease Phillips’ concern to some degree.
Schrager’s project did not receive a full EIR, either, but instead was approved after undergoing a mitigated negative declaration.
Yates said that under California Environmental Quality Act laws, (known as CEQA), Caruso would have to undergo a full EIR only if it was determined that his project would cause significantly larger impacts to the environment than Schrager’s. Staff decided that the added impacts were relatively minor – stating, for instance, that the difference in the level of noise on the freeway reflected off the sound walls would be inaudible to the human ear. As such, he said, staff legally had the option to merely file an addendum, which they did.
To this, Phillips replied, “I hope you’re right,” but later said he might be able to suspend disbelief on the “CEQA stuff.”
Phillips was also critical of the 48-foot height of the hotel’s tallest portion. That’s 10 feet higher than what is allowed by zoning code. Caruso said the building needs to stretch that high to accommodate the two subterranean parking structures. He added that he has taken down the height in response to the requests of officials.
Commissioner Claire Gottsdanker questioned the staff’s characterization of the Montecito Board of Architectural Review’s comments on the project. Although MBAR did not officially recommend the project, staff members said their comments at a December meeting were overwhelmingly positive. But Gottsdanker said she was at the meeting, and the minutes do not reflect all the comments that were made.
Commissioners also worried that Caruso substantially underestimated the number of employees he will need. In addition, they questioned the historic appropriateness of the “plantation-style” buildings and asked staff to put together more information on how compatible the new Miramar would be with the surrounding neighborhood.
Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at email@example.com.